Innerviews, music without borders

Béla Fleck
Nomadic instincts
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2006 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

Bela Fleck

Seeking fresh horizons for the banjo is a hallmark of Béla Fleck’s storied career. From his 1980s tenure with bluegrass innovators New Grass Revival, to inventive solo output that’s seen him integrate the banjo into classical, pop, country, and countless global musics, to the everything-and-the-kitchen sink experimentation of Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, he has helped to reestablish the banjo as a cool, contemporary and cutting-edge instrument.

After several Flecktones albums, including 2003’s ambitious triple CD Little Worlds that found the act collaborating with all-star guests including Derek Trucks, Branford Marsalis and Bobby McFerrin, the group chose a back-to-basics approach for its 2006 release, The Hidden Land. The disc solely features the Flecktones quartet, also comprised of bassist Victor Wooten, percussionist Roy “Future Man” Wooten and saxophonist Jeff Coffin. Together, the band expertly hones its trademark combination of bluegrass, jazz, funk, and rock influences within a more spacious and stripped-down environment.

The Hidden Land was recorded just prior to a year-long Flecktones hiatus after 17 years of intense activity since first forming in 1988. But the Nashville-based Fleck was hardly dormant during his sabbatical. He kept himself busy performing in a trio with bassist Stanley Clarke and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, as well as working on a concerto with cellist Edgar Meyer and tabla master Zakir Hussain.

During 2005, he also traveled to Africa to trace the roots of the banjo in that continent and make a record and documentary titled Throw Down Your Heart, released in 2009. Both showcase Fleck’s dynamic and diverse interaction with musicians as he travels through Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia, and Mali. Fleck considers the music that resulted among the most ambitious he’s ever been involved with. It also represents the most significant example to date of how he’s reinvigorating the roots of his instrument while simultaneously taking it into previously uncharted territory.

Bela Fleck

Why did you choose to keep things in the family for The Hidden Land?

The band has been together for 17 years and we’re always trying to find the right next thing to do and not repeat ourselves. Having a lot of guests playing with us was an incredible amount of fun, but if we were to continue along that path, we would become very predictable. Having other people play with you takes the heat off you to really dig deep and be creative. With guest musicians, there’s an automatic inspiration that happens and it’s not necessarily the same challenge.

Provide some insight into the group’s collective music-making approach.

These days, a lot of it happens at soundchecks. It’s very rare that we schedule a rehearsal off the road. That’s because we’re on the road so much anyway and everyone has lots of commitments outside of the band. When you tour, most of the time is typically spent just sitting around, so if we can make soundchecks into a creative endeavor, it lets us get an incredible amount of stuff done. Our engineer prefers we do this stuff after the soundcheck, but the truth is when you first walk on stage and pick up your instruments, that’s when the creativity often strikes.

The way it might work is Victor starts screwing around before anyone else gets to soundcheck and he’ll fall into something really special in an interesting, odd time signature. And then when I get there, I’ll hear him and say “That sounds really cool. Let’s keep playing that.” If things evolve, I might say “Let’s try to make that into a Flecktones tune.” While we’re working on it, we might think of a piece Jeff Coffin wrote that we never recorded, and realize there was a piece of it that would work well with Victor’s tune. Suddenly, boom, you start getting this compound thing going on. Then I think “Wow, where can this still go? Let’s write some more” and we might do that on the spot, and soon we have a whole band tune written.

Is the process a democratic one?

I’m typically the last word, because I think somebody needs to be. So, I’m the funnel it all goes through, but it’s as democratic as I think it can be.

How does your personal creative process differ?

Sometimes it starts with me searching around the banjo for cool stuff and sometimes it’s stuff that pops into my head. There’s usually a spark of inspiration and I just run with it and everything happens really fast. A big chunk of it has to be there from the beginning. Typically, most of a verse or a chorus has to pop into my head to begin. Although most of what I do is instrumental, I do think of the pieces in songwriting terms. Also, I find that when I haven’t played the banjo all day or for a couple of days, the first thing that comes out is a new tune when I pick it up. I’ve started recording everything I do when I pick up my banjo on a multi-track recorder. When I’m done, I dump everything into Pro Tools and edit the material into a core of ideas that are strong enough to build songs from. Ideas can also happen anywhere, like when I’m driving or running. I’ll start humming a melody or singing an improvisation. The good thing about those ideas is that they aren’t necessarily banjo-istic. If I sing them first, they can sound more melodic or like a vocal.

I understand you tend to be very self-critical when it comes to writing.

When I compose, I write a lot of stuff I’m unsatisfied with. I might think it’s kind of nice, but not good enough, so I have to keep pushing and pushing until I come up with something that is really special as a composition. And in the studio, I’ll do take after take after take until I think I really have something good happening. I tend to hone in on sections and keep playing them and troubleshoot until everything falls in place perfectly and it feels like a great weave. I might record 100 solos to get into an area I haven’t been in before or to complete a thought in a way I haven’t done before. The solo might be just a minute-and-a-half long, but I’ll go back and listen to those 100 takes to figure out what was good, what wasn’t good, what I like and what I don’t like about my playing. Sometimes it won’t be until takes 91 through 94 before I find something I think is decent. There’s a critical element in putting it all together too. I also like to edit takes together to ensure all the best live moments that happened in the studio are captured in a song.

Bela Fleck

In other words, you have a serious perfectionist streak.

It’s a working style that developed along the way. Maybe it’s a justification for being a picky little creep over the years. [laughs] People used to say to me “Hey, that’s fine. That’s good enough. Stop.” And I’d go “I don’t want to stop because I’m not done.” That approach made me very resentful in the early days because I felt a lot of pressure to accept whatever happened on the live track or to accept one of the first overdubs I did just to not bore the other people in the room or put them through the hell I was going through because I wasn’t satisfied. I think musicians who do a lot of recording have gone through periods where they just weren’t happy with what they do and everybody tells them what they did is fine. Then the record comes out and you listen to it and go “I should never have let them make me keep that solo. It’s just not good enough.”

Other times, you think “That was fine. What was my problem?” There is a lot of psychological stuff that goes into this. You have to manage yourself in order to accurately assess if you’re doing something positive or negative.

How else have you evolved as a musician and composer since the beginning of The Flecktones?

I’m not sure I’m a better one, but I make different choices today. Edgar Meyer and I were talking about how most of the brilliant work done by brilliant people is done in their twenties. That’s frustrating for people in their forties to consider. So, I’m trying to think of stuff all the time that I haven’t done before. Certain things I came up with earlier had a simplicity or directness that’s harder for me to get to now. I continue to look for those elements and they’re represented on The Hidden Land. For instance, “The Whistle Tune” that ends the record has a good bit of stuff going on, but at its core is a simple, straightforward melody that’s pretty hummable. When I wrote it, it had a certain depth to it and felt like a real song, instead of another complicated banjo thing. I’ve been looking for things on the banjo for 30 years now, so it’s sometimes harder to find something I haven’t done before, so the choices are more subtly different than they used to be. I am rejecting more things that seem overly complicated or sappy for no reason. I’m always trying to get into a direct, focused, pure kind of writing. That’s what I’m always hoping for.

What’s your philosophy as a bandleader?

My philosophy is to let everyone figure out what they want to do first and try not to interfere if possible. If you’ve got really good people, you should give them a lot of space. As a composer and leader, I find if I leave them alone, they’ll come up with things that are more natural for them than if I tell them exactly what to do. So I start with that approach, but always keep in mind the vision for the song. If it’s not working, I feel comfortable making suggestions. I want to maintain a critical element in the group to ensure we use the best ideas and keep looking for more. If things aren’t working, I try to ask a lot of questions like “Why isn’t it working?” and “Does everyone agree or is it just me?” Ultimately, I’m the leader, so I get to make the call, but I find I’m at my best when I lay back and I’m not too critical early on. Then as we get deeper, I try to refine things and identify areas to improve. I try to be as open and relaxed as possible.

Have you always been this way?

No. In fact I think I made some mistakes early on, before The Flecktones, on some of my solo records. I would push people really hard. I remember someone saying to me “Hey, if you don’t like the way I’m playing, why did you ask me to play?” My response was “I do like the way you play, but I want you to do something different than I’ve ever heard you do before.” That didn’t feel very good to some people. So it made me want to find a different way to get that point across without hurting anyone’s feelings. It’s been a real challenge. The way for me to do it now is to get great people, record a lot of stuff, and then I choose what to use after they leave. I always make sure I have more than I need and different options. Generally, there will be something they did that I’m going to really love and I’ll have the ability to choose it. That’s worked out pretty well. It balances my controlling, intense characteristics with an approach that allows people to contribute their best work.

Bela Fleck

How do you address the issue of sustain on the banjo?

One solution is to create the illusion of sustain by playing a lot of notes that overlap and ring on top of each other. I try to keep my lines really flowing and use open strings when I can. I also try not to get off the notes too quickly, even when I’m playing fast. If I’m playing closed position scales or lines, I don’t rush so the notes become staccato. A psychological technique I use is to imagine the note being longer than it really is, so I don’t rush to try and fill it in. Another interesting thing I do when playing single-note lines is to use vibrato on the note to draw out every nuance possible. I got that from watching acoustic guitarists milk notes. Having said all of that, a lot of the time, the starkness of the banjo’s notes dying out can be a very attractive sound and one that creates room for other instruments.

You traveled to Africa to trace the roots of the banjo. Give me a snapshot of the journey the instrument has made.

The banjo originated in Africa. It’s an instrument the slaves brought across from West Africa to America. Gradually, the more they played it in the United States, the more it moved into the mainstream. It got to the point where all kinds of people played the banjo. In the late 1800s, women were playing the instrument in the parlor, people were playing it in blackface doing imitations of plantation music, others wrote Broadway shows on it, and it was used in ragtime music. Then it branched out into early jazz. If you think of Jelly Roll Morton or Louis Armstrong, the banjo played a big role as the rhythm instrument in their music. Gradually, it fell out of favor as the guitar emerged and then all the banjo players lost their jobs and had to become guitarists if they wanted to work. The banjo moved out of jazz completely, except for groups that played the old music.

During the period when the banjo was being played in folk traditions, starting with black musicians and then picked up by white players, it blended all of the different musics around, from African music to Irish and English music. America is a melting pot and it melted onto the banjo. Gradually, from that stew, old time music and bluegrass emerged. And here I am years later working in realms that remain connected to those universes. My interest is bringing the banjo back into jazz and reigniting interest in it as an instrument that’s played in all kinds of music, be it rock, classical, bluegrass, or jazz. There’s a role for banjo in all of these genres. I really enjoy finding ways for the banjo to fit. Going to Africa and bringing back the modern banjo to interact with musicians playing old banjos, singers, percussionists, guitarists, and thumb piano and marimba players, was amazing. Throw Down Your Heart is only partly about revisiting the origins of the instrument because I’m not a historian. I was more interested in this as a musical safari in which I went to these places and found incredible musicians, and having the experience of capturing it on film and audio. The goal was to represent how deep the instrument is, particularly for people who can’t go to Africa and hear these guys live.

What made 2005 an ideal period to pursue this exploration?

It was related to The Flecktones taking a year off. I was looking for a big project that I always wanted to do that I never had enough time for because The Flecktones is usually a full-time job. After we made the decision to take a break, I went for it. I felt like I wanted to do it while I was relatively young and brave, still had a lot of energy, and wasn’t too used to my comforts. It seemed like a dangerous and complicated trip, so I didn’t want to wait too long to do it. I worked with my brother, Sascha Paladino, to research and put it together. It was hard work to make it happen, and difficult to find people in those countries that could shepherd us and make sure we were safe and lead us to the people we were trying to find. It was a huge endeavor, but incredibly successful. I’m thrilled with the music I got to play with these people on Throw Down Your Heart. It represents the biggest adventure of my life.

Tell me about some of the broader musical perspectives you brought back with you from Africa.

The most important thing I witnessed is how music fits into the lives of Africans. Everyone plays music. It’s part of what happens in a day in a village. They have songs for different things that happen—songs for the morning, for birth, and to teach kids what to watch out for when they grow up. We have some similar ideas in our folk songs, but they come from that African root. The trip also helped me move into a place of letting go of control. As you can tell from our conversation, I’m very much for fighting for control to make things as good as I can make them. I am usually very well-rehearsed when I approach a musical situation, but this was a case where I couldn’t always do that. I had to trust in the moment, which I really enjoyed doing. The truth is I sometimes get too prepared and rehearsed, and it doesn’t actually help the music. So, part of this was about letting things go and allowing music to happen. I invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of my own money into this project and I could have just shown up somewhere and it could have been a disaster. I had to let go and trust that really great things would happen and they did almost every time we recorded and filmed.

Bela Fleck

Describe your perspective on integrating so many different world musics into your approach.

Much of my interest relates to State Department trips I did with New Grass Revival to different countries, as well as trips to India, Africa and the Far East with The Flecktones. Wherever we went, I walked around with a recorder and just recorded music on the streets. These were whole other worlds of music I didn’t know about and I thought most of it was playable on a banjo if I had a lifetime to spend on it. Some musics are easier to fall into and others are all work, requiring an amazing amount of preparation. Indian classical music falls into the latter category. If you’re going to play that music on a high level, your counting skills have to be incredibly honed, as well as your ability to play raags the way they’re supposed to be played. I’ve dabbled with it enough to understand a fraction of what’s going on. I realized if that’s all I wanted to do, that music would sound good on the banjo, but it would take a lifetime. So, I explore these musics in a shallower fashion. I’m inspired by Indian classical music and I’ve learned enough to push myself into some different directions for my own music. I’ve introduced elements of the raag and rhythmic concepts into my music, but I would never presume to say I’m an Indian musician. That would be as presumptuous as me saying I’m a classical musician because I made a classical album called Perpetual Motion, even though I won a couple of Grammys for it. I learned an album’s worth of pieces and played them, but I couldn’t go out and tour the classical world. I don’t have the time to do that and continue with everything else I’m doing. My method is to take a project-by-project approach and put a lot of attention into an area for a limited time—like practicing African music for a year. Now, I’m kind of done with African music. Once the record is out, I’m going to find another mountain to try and climb.

I understand Return to Forever played a major role in propelling your interest to stretch out on your instrument.

That’s true. When I was in high school playing banjo for a couple of years, Return to Forever came to my town and played the Beacon Theater in New York City. I got to hear them and it was a revelatory experience. It changed my whole world to hear Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Al Di Meola, and Lenny White doing something so creative and exciting. The audience was going crazy checking out all of this wild stuff. I remember watching them and thinking “All of the notes they play are on the banjo. How come I don’t know where any of them are?” They knew their instruments from top to bottom and I literally went home after that concert, got out my banjo and started learning scales and modes. I was up really late. [laughs] That became my new thing—to learn how to play all over the neck. I wanted to go beyond the basic positions banjo players played in. I wanted to understand the entire instrument and be able to play in any scale, mode or key. In other words, I wanted to do what the Return to Forever guys could do.

When I got a call from Stanley to ask if I’d come out on tour with him and Jean-Luc Ponty in 2005, there was no way I could say no, even though I was hoping to have a quiet year. It was an incredible compliment and it went right to the heart of who I am. To get to play with someone who is such a hero of mine and changed the way I play was too good to pass up. I was also a big fan of Jean-Luc Ponty, who plays such beautiful lines and has a wonderful concept on the violin. Both of them transcended their instruments and nobody else plays like them. What they did and continue to do is what I’m trying to do on the banjo. They’re both full of inspiration, unusual genius and were a lot of fun to work with.

You’ve said you consider music something that “helps you create a path to yourself.” Tell me about that philosophy.

When I said that, I was trying to get to the point of what music was about for me and it’s a heavy question to ponder. For some of us, music has a spiritual element to it. It’s definitely that way for me. If I treat it that way, then the goal of music is to express who I am on the Earth in one way or another. It’s a lofty goal and it doesn’t always work out that way. When you listen to someone’s music, you hear a whole lot of who they are in it. You can also hear if someone is insecure when they play too much or if they’re too busy on their instrument. You can also hear where they’ve evolved to in a lot of ways. Some people are naturally deep souls and it comes out in the music. Some people are enjoyable to listen to and it’s not that deep, it’s just faster. I’m talking about music that people are playing, not stuff that’s happened in a computer, though we might manipulate a recording afterwards.

Do you feel any pressure to constantly break new ground?

Definitely. It’s almost like I made a deal with the banjo when I started playing it and I really owe it. Music is almost a religious experience for me. Part of it is to simply please myself and part of it is because I have more opportunities to interact with musicians who are on a very high level because of my abilities and the place I’ve arrived at in the business. They will return my phone calls and want to get together and I get to learn from all of them. That makes so many things possible that could not have happened 10 years ago. I love knowing there is always something new to look forward to.

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Béla Fleck